Why Churches Should Stop Being Obsessed With Growth
Does the size of your church really matter?
You're probably familiar with the statistics and think-pieces that make frequent appearances: 'Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church' or 'The Secret To Church Growth'. There are even church growth consultants who promise to maximise church profits and vastly multiply church attendance.
Of course, it's understandable why it's something people want to talk about. No one wants to be part of something that's dying, and who wouldn't want the group they're a part of, especially if salvation is at stake, to grow? However, the statistics can be confusing, and often unhelpful, so here's why church growth isn't so important as we make it out to be.
Does anyone know how to grow?
The first problem is that not everyone agrees what really does make a church grow. A well circulated five-year study of churches in Canada suggested that theologically conservative churches are more likely to grow, while the theologically liberal are more likely to decline. One of the authors of that study, David Millard Haskell, has recently written more about those findings, and his conclusions remain: there is a strong correlation between doctrinal conservatism and growth.
Haskell acknowledges – without changing his view – that: "In defense of liberal churches, one might venture that it is the strength of belief, not the specifics of belief, that is the real cause of growth. In this case, pastors embracing liberal theology are just as likely as conservative pastors to experience church growth, provided they are firm and clear in their religious convictions."
In that case, the content of convictions isn't actually what's most important, but the strength of those convictions. Echoing this pushback, 'From Anecdote to Evidence' (the findings from the Church Growth Research Programme undertaken by the Church of England from 2011-2013) noted: "Style of worship and where a church places itself in terms of its theological tradition appear to have no significant link with growth, so long as there is consistency and clarity and the chosen style and tradition are wholeheartedly adopted." Again, wholehearted adherence to a tradition is more significant than the specific content of that tradition. The report gave other reasons for decline in attendance: lack of children/young people and investment in youth work, and lacking one leader/singular group identity.
That said, the trend toward decline in more liberal churches is worth noting – liberals tend to be more reactionary, defined by their rejection of certain traditions and beliefs, which while liberating, often minimises ideological identity. If a community is defined by "We're not so sure about x or y any more", they're unlikely to be as inspiring and energising as a community that says "We're passionate about x."
Being big doesn't make you right
Following on from this though, we should remember that growth isn't a vindication of one's beliefs. Getting bigger doesn't mean you're right. That is sometimes the tone of these discussions: a report about theological conservatives being more likely to grow is celebrated as a sign that they're on the right track. Faithfulness is rewarded! But you would only take that logic so far. In other cases, dwindling numbers are seen positively: they're a sign that you're really preaching the word, refusing to charm your congregation with liberal niceness and instead giving them the uncompromising truth. Evidently, evaluating the truth of your beliefs from their popularity doesn't get you very far. There are important discussions taking place about how to get, for example, the millennial generation back into Church. But it's worth remembering that even if you can preach a popular message, it doesn't mean it's right.
Lastly, it's worth reflecting on the nature of the discussion about growth. Obsessing over numbers can become dangerous, and it wasn't something Jesus was particularly interested in. He faced constant rejection, and he didn't pander to what people wanted to make them like him. The Church isn't a business, and the kind of growth that God does seems to care about can't be measured by numbers. God wants us to grow in character, to become more like him, and sadly that's just not easy to judge from a spreadsheet. It's the kind of growth that really makes a difference though.
Because God is living and active and cares about his Church, one would hope that some signs of life would be expected from a community that is truly committed to him. That may look like bigger numbers because people hear the good news, it may not, but it is important that churches are at least self-aware enough to ask how their communities are responding to their message. To truly listen to outsiders, or those who are leaving, is all part of what it means to be genuinely loving and not arrogantly tone deaf to the world.
A healthy church should grow just like a healthy tree does. They grow slowly, but surely, and ultimately become something beautiful. But I don't think trees worry too much about how tall they are.
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